Oliver Whiskard sees the National Theatre production making audiences squirm
I could not have had more anticipation for Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed at the National Theatre, with early reports of people fainting and walking out in disgust during the previews. This is paradoxically the best possible way the National Theatre could have gained publicity for the production, but carries an unfortunate side effect of the play losing some of its original artistic force; it can inevitably become a cynical exercise in proving you can stomach the succession of discontinuous brutalities that are being offered to you, which Katie Mitchell does not in any way disguise. What is legal to show on stage, is shown. But Sarah Kane’s play is about more than just the boundary pushing acts of violence; it is an exploration of the depths of human cruelty and the problematic nature of love. The impetus for writing the play was a line from Roland Barthes: ‘Being in love is like being in Auschwitz.’
The set design is in fact a kind of Auschwitz, but converted from a university campus building. In this setting we see an assortment of characters: a woman and her dead brother, a disturbed young boy, a gay couple, an exotic dancer and a sadistic torturer called Tinker. These characters, in disjointed scenes and disjointed dialogue, go through extreme emotional stress and pain. One outstanding aspect of this production was in fact the acting of the cast, who, despite limited dialogue and narrative, managed to create vivid personalities. But unfortunately the overall design and direction let these performances down. Every furnishing, every prop, felt like it was plucked from a cheesy theme-park house of horrors, or a haunted asylum in a gaudy American horror film. Everything was a little too pronounced, a little too loud, to affect me emotionally, or even make me squirm. Despair is sometimes best translated to the audience gradually and subtly, and is defined, in my opinion, more by absence and darkness than an abundant plenitude of gnarled implements, grime, and blood. Some episodes were emotionally affecting, but these moments were not the violent ones. I am referring in particular to the scenes involving Tinker and the stripper, where the plastic display box she was encased in would go dark and require more change to start up again. Her visible anguish, understated, would flicker on and off in intermittent darkness and light. It’s these little, gentle details that evoke more than a massive electrocution machine ever could.
Just in case people were not aware of the preliminary ‘controversy’, trigger warnings adorned the entrance to the theatre read: ‘Contains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence.’ For Katie Mitchell’s production of the play, this warning sums up the experience adequately enough. If I was asked as I came out of theatre what impression the play left on me, I might have parroted it back to them in monotone.
The problem was that the direction was not effective in conjuring on stage the vital tone, the feeling of despair, needed to make the violence visceral and affecting. There are certainly many brilliant individual aspects to the play, and it would satisfy anyone who merely wanted to see the limits of what could be represented in the theatre, but overall I felt that, for all the fanfare, I should have been more engrossed by this production than I ultimately was.
Cleansed is on at The National Theatre until 5th May
Featured Image Credit: Stephen Cummiskey